The shift to the extremes gives the Liberal Democrats a perfect chance

Anyone who spectated upon Boris Johnson’s Cabinet reshuffle last Wednesday would have got the message: Britain is on a fast track to the far-right. Priti Patel, who has previously backed the return of capital punishment, is now in charge of the Home Office, overseeing crime policy and immigration. Dominic Raab, who abandoned his responsibility as Brexit Secretary to pursue his own leadership ambitions, is the new Foreign Secretary, where his views of feminists as obnoxious bigots will be represented on the world stage. Whilst Theresa May attempted to bring her depleted party together in her Cabinet, Boris Johnson has wiped the floor of any potential dissenters, and shifted his government distinctly to the right in the process.

Johnson’s stamp of authority in ‘The Night of the Blond Knives’ masks the real weakness that will soon envelope his premiership: his wafer-thin majority. With the result of the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election still in progress, the government has just two votes to get anything through the Commons. For all of Johnson’s confidence about getting his Brexit way, the maths does not support his policy. With the EU showing no sign of budging on the backstop, his chances of getting any deal that will please both Labour and the hard-line Brexiteers in his own party are minute. Pushing through a no-deal exit has been shown to be vastly unpopular as well, and ignoring the wishes of the elected House would lead to the end of his government, and destroy his credibility with the public. Ignore the bravado; there is no way Johnson’s hard-right agenda can be pushed through without consent.

On the other side of the debate is the forlorn case of Jeremy Corbyn. His Brexit policy as clear as the Moscow sky in deep fog, his tenure as Labour leader looks to be flagging. With his Remainer voters departing in large droves to the Lib Dems, his northern support base has also gone to the Brexit Party in the face of his half-hearted support for a second referendum. His previously reverential support base in also waning and the party’s hard-left policies showing little sign of winning over the greater public at a general election.

The two extremes on the sides of British politics leave a huge, gaping hole in the middle. The Tory Remainers have either stuck to their principles and resigned, or have abandoned their views in the hope of a good job in the new government (for a better description, see Robert Browning). The centre-left and centre-right are both overshadowed by their extreme leaders. Only the Liberal Democrats have the chance to promote a liberal agenda that can expect electoral success.

The gradual move of the two main parties onto the parts of the political scene that were previously mere fringes presents an opportunity. It means that millions of previously tribal voters are searching for a new political home, and the Liberal Democrats can offer compromises to all of them. Moderate Labour voters can come for the party’s resolute Brexit position, and former Tories know from the Coalition years that Labour’s lack of economic competence is not an issue, and are repelled by the perilous sceptre of no-deal.

The election of a new Liberal leader in Jo Swinson at the same time as the major parties are heading towards decline is further proof of a coming renaissance. Boris Johnson’s coronation as Prime Minister hides his obvious weakness; that he has no majority for his Brexit strategy, and that his domestic agenda does not have any substance behind the eloquence. Labour’s evident failure to go beyond political posturing in the nation’s interest shows the inherent flaw in Jeremy Corbyn’s agenda: he can’t see past his limited hard-left doctrines. This leaves the Liberal Democrats with a golden opportunity to show that they are not just opposed to Brexit, but also that they have a competent vision for Britain that can counter the rabid populism enveloping British politics. To succeed, the party needs a coherent manifesto that goes beyond the prism of Brexit and can engineer the revival of liberal values that are needed in Britain to counter the blatant failures of the two main parties.

* Patrick Maxwell is a Liberal Democrat member and political blogger at www.gerrymander.blog and a commentator at bbench.co.uk.

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9 Comments

  • John Peters 29th Jul '19 - 4:35pm

    I agree that the chances of Boris getting a new deal through this unrepresentative parliament are so slim as to be non-existent.

    Luckily he has no need to try. All he needs to do is provide no opportunity for this unrepresentative parliament to control common’s business.

    The only way to block leaving without a treaty is for this unrepresentative parliament to have a VONC.

    That is what I believe he is waiting for. Brenda will then have her say on the forced election.

  • But John our parliament has been unrepresentative for years. I suspect however what will kill Brexit is either the dire economic news before or the dire economic news afterwards. No money, means no goodies and many of our Brexiteers while talking the good fight about willing to live on turnips will find turnips do not agree with them. You were all warned twas a bad idea but until reality bites, I fear you will contort yourself into ever more resibable positions in a desperate attempt to avoid the fool staring at you in the mirror. The fool isn’t going away John he’s getting louder and more clown like by the day, one day you will have to face him. Luckily for me I have no fool in this fight, alas you can’t say the same.

  • Paul Barker 29th Jul '19 - 5:38pm

    Its worth remembering that even a No Deal Brexit needs a good deal of legislation to be passed, otherwise it will be unclear what The Law is. Without those New Laws No Deal will be even more chaotic than even the gloomiest are suggesting now.
    We are in a very odd situation where many people still don’t believe Brexit will happen but its not clear how it can be stopped. The Betting markets still only have Brexit this Year as a I in 3 chance while Business seems to think that something will turn up.
    When will Reality sink in, September, October, who knows ?

  • David Evershed 29th Jul '19 - 5:55pm

    The 2016 referendum was a binary choice between Leave or Remain. There wasn’t a middle road.

    So I don’t think the 33 million people who voted either Leave or Remain should be labelled extreme because of making a choice. Unfortunately until Brexit is resolved that is how people are going to be identified and identify themselves for political purposes.

    Nor should the Leave/Remain identity be mapped into a Right/Left identity. I don’t think Tony Benn, Michael Foot or Jeremy Corbyn could be categorised as being right wing despite their anti EEC/EU leanings.

    I’m just trying to point out things are not as black and white as some portray. Neither Leavers nor Remainers (Lib Dems?) ought to be described as extreme or left wing/right wing for their sincerely held views on EU membership.

  • Although it’s commonly said that the Lib Dems will become more attractive as the 2 main parties drift to the extremes, electoral history proves otherwise.

    The issue when both parties go to the extreme is that those vaguely on the left are so fearful of the new “extreme” right (Boris Johnson & Co), that they stick with Labour out of fear. Likewise those vaguely on the right are so fearful of the new “extreme” left (Jeremy Corbyn & Co) that they stick with Conservative out of fear.

    The Lib Dems’ best electoral performance has actually been when Conservative and Labour have been closest to the centre (Blair, Cameron, etc) because soft Labour and soft Conservative voters are less afraid of a radical outcome. Soft Conservatives were less afraid of Blair so didn’t mind “risking” their vote with the Lib Dems, soft Labour were less afraid of Cameron so didn’t mind “risking” their vote with the Lib Dems.

    Obviously it is possible that Labour and Conservative become so extreme that enough sensible people (which is a majority of voters) find them both equally disgusting that the Lib Dems push through, though that needs to be tested with a full blown election with national campaigning focusing minds. Last time that happened in 2017, the Lib Dems were heavily squeezed, and it’s very possible this would happen again

  • Richard Easter 29th Jul '19 - 7:12pm

    The problem is that the centre ground may not be where the Lib Dems think it is – the research from Professor Matthew Goodwin of Nottingham University suggests as much.

    There is sufficient evidence to think that voters are rather skeptical of free markets, open borders, globalisation and social liberalism. There is rather more support for protectionism – whether it is of the Trumpian / UKIP kind, or the Corbynite kind, not to mention nativism and patriotism, rather than global values. Equally the so called “hard left” policies of Corbyn (renationalisation, higher taxes on the rich, national education service) are rather more popular than austerity and privatisation.

    Johnson and Corbyn may be poor leaders, but I could well forsee someone like Andy Burnham leading Labour on a Corbynite style manifesto, with sufficient support for Brexit and a dollop of social conservatism, lancing the Lib Dems. Equally I could also see Johnson simply making mincemeat from Swinson by playing the “patriot” and “democracy” cards.

  • marcstevens 29th Jul '19 - 8:12pm

    Why do people on here see the death penalty as just a far right issue? It isn’t. There are people on both the left and right who support it just as there are EUphobes on the left and right. In fact Bob Crow was in favour of it. Also poll ratings were rising under Vince Cable. And although I wish Jo Swinson well, she needs to flesh out policies whenever she is interviewed and not just talk about the EU. When Corbyn does speak on policy, Labour’s rating goes up. Yes I agree with Richard on some re-nationalisation, such as the railways. This should be a Lib Dem policy in keeping with the party’s commitment to a ‘mixed’ economy as well as increased funding for local government. increasing spending on social care for the elderly which is poorly underfunded and can be achieved by ensuring companies like Google and Amazon pay their taxes in full over here.

  • The fact that there are people who like the left – right model of politics does not mean that that is the way in which many others see the world.
    We need to look at the ways in which people see the political choices. For example very many people will see the candidates as honest, hard working and so on. They will vote accordingly. Does the idea that where you work you win sound familiar?
    Unfortunately there are people who see the new season’s Tory Prime Minister as plain speaking.
    We really need to resist the temptation to project our ideas on to others.

  • James Pugh has this spot on. It has been a constant frustration that this argument, and the precedent that supports it, is dismissed so quickly and blindly.
    Moreover, the Lib Dems do best when there is an obvious enemy of their own. But the Brexit Party will soon become an irrelevance, given the Tories are taking that ground, making it an even more dramatic blue on red fight.

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